Things Below: Thoughts on the World and Literature, Part Two of Two

Continued from last issue.

O’Connor’s sense of the fantastic nature and Rev. Ames’ wonder at the lovely particularity of creation are, in my experience, unusual among Christians. In fact, it’s rare among people anywhere, no matter their religious perspective. This general inattentiveness to nature’s quiet glories draws the attention of Emerson, for instance, in his book Nature, where, regarding the stars, he writes, “Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If [they] should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would believe and adore.” Yet, though these “envoys of beauty” shine forth night after night, we go about our tired business, heads down, ignoring their miraculous presence. And if a shower of acorns or a shimmering night sky strike us as exceptional manifestations in nature, consider Emily Dickinson’s contention that something wondrous exists even in that “familiar species,” presumably a flowering weed––maybe a pest as common and dull-seeming as a dandelion. All men, then, all but the few like Dickinson’s poet or the aging Rev. Ames, are blinded to the extraordinary qualities of the everyday physical world. 

True, there are scenes and events in nature––a spectacular electrical storm or the sight and roar of a great waterfall––that can’t help but astonish us. And Rev. Ames’ experience, while it isn’t on the order of witnessing a thunderstorm, does involve an incident of unexpected liveliness. All the same, it appears obvious that the natural scene that brings him delight would be only vaguely noticed by others as they hustle along the road to their appointments. Such an awareness is certainly new to him. Implicit in this moment, again, is the idea that even in the absence of the thrashing limbs, the scene––the trees, the sky, the fields––in its everyday sameness, is, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God.” If this is the case, then each bit of the physical world is worthy of our attention and, perhaps, our astonishment. At the least, there is more in our natural surroundings to justify our gaze, to surprise and delight us.

I have intimated that a general Christian disengagement from the physical world may originate to some degree in an uncertainty about the purpose for that world. That ambivalence is reflected, too, in some Christian literature and attitudes toward literature. One example of this is an insistence on or preference for literary works deemed morally correct. In other words, perhaps we can assuage our anxieties about the world and literature by writing and reading stories that illustrate a moral lesson. (Just so we’re clear about this, remember that such categories as moral rightness are not literary categories and should never be employed in judging the literary quality of a work.). A variation on the notion of moral rightness is an insistence that a story or poem be redemptive in nature. Whatever that means. Well, actually, I think we know what that means. That means works that are Christian––or close enough to Christian to be granted honorary citizenship. 

The impulse to moral rightness or redemptive purpose can take a number of forms, some certainly more sophisticated or sophisticated-seeming than others. All at root, however, hope to illustrate a particular moral vision or, it were possible, to inculcate certain moral principles in the reader. As gross a version of such writing is what has been termed the literature of moral uplift, a genre about which, thankfully, Flannery O’Connor had a few thoughts. It is O’Connor, for instance, who, while a devout Christian, responded with exasperation to a Life magazine editorial asking that America’s novelists “show us the redeeming quality of spiritual purpose” (MM 26). If that request alone wasn’t enough to infuriate O’Connor, the Life editors elaborated their remarks by saying that our literature ought to exhibit “the joy of life itself.” Rather than hopping on board and seconding the editors’ appeal to the smiling properties of “spiritual purpose,” O’Connor, the contrarian, answers that “the writer who emphasizes spiritual values is very likely to take the darkest view of all of what he sees in this country today.” There’s also the “old lady [from] California” who in a letter informs O’Connor that at the end of a long day a weary reader seeks something that will “lift up his heart,” then complains that “her heart had not been lifted up by anything of [O’Connor’s] she had read.” “I think,” O’Connor remarks, “that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up” (MM 47-8). 

Not just in these passages, but elsewhere as well, O’Connor fumes at the literature of moral uplift––works of shallow, trite, predictable moralism: Christian presumably, but as literature, contemptible. She signals in her response to the old lady from California that, yes, she does believe in something she might term “uplift,” she regularly highlights her concern for “spiritual values,” and she writes stories and novels that may be called narratives of redemption––but she insists, too, with Thomas Aquinas that “a work of art is a good in itself” (MM 171). In other words, O’Connor says, the artist “can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists”; a novel or a poem or a story needn’t fulfill “some utilitarian” purpose, like communicating the good news or inviting a reader to gaze on the beauty of Christ. She adds that “the writer whose vocation is fiction sees his obligation as being to the truth of what can happen in life, and not to the reader––not to the reader’s taste, not to the reader’s happiness, not even to the reader’s morals” (MM 172). As for what we might mean by the term “Catholic novel,” O’Connor says that above everything else, it is “one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships” (MM 172). Or, to recall her words quoted earlier, the goal of a fiction writer, Christian or pagan, is “to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.” 

I don’t know about you, but I find O’Connor’s words refreshing. And for a young Christian writer (or reader), they may even be liberating. Unless you’re the one out there who’s convinced that the single thing our wretched world needs is one more Christian allegory about magic elves. 

So, how about it, does O’Connor successfully avoid the pit of cheap moral uplift, of writing Sunday School lessons masquerading as art? A quick review of her fiction would certainly suggest so. Just a survey of her two short story collections provides the following, not atypical examples. There’s her best-known story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” about a family driving to Florida on vacation. They take a wrong turn, wreck their car, and are murdered by a trio of escaped convicts. Or there’s “Good Country People,” in which a young woman, a PhD in philosophy, picnics in the loft of an abandoned barn with a Bible salesman who steals her wooden leg. Or, how about one more––“Greenleaf”––the story of Mrs. May, a widow and mother of two good-for-nothing adult sons, who on a picture-perfect spring day is gored through the heart by an escaped bull. You’ll have to agree with the woman from California: these aren’t the kind of thing to “lift . . . [the] hearts” of exhausted readers. Or any other readers, if we’re being honest. 

Having just heard my synopses of three stories by O’Connor, those who haven’t read her will be surprised when I say that these, like just about everything she wrote, are often very funny and written as an expression of O’Connor’s Christian faith. As she phrased it in a letter to Winifred McCarthy, “ . . . it is the free act, the acceptance of grace particularly, that I always have my eye on as the thing which will make the story work” (MM 115). I know, it sounds crazy. The acceptance of grace: a murdered family in the Georgia woods. Grace: a Bible salesman who steals artificial legs. You shouldn’t be surprised as you puzzle over these odd juxtapositions that you’re at the crux of O’Connor’s struggle and method as a Christian writer. Of this she writes, “The problem of the novelist who wishes to write about a man’s encounter with God is how he shall make the experience––which is both natural and supernatural––understandable, and credible, to his reader. In any age this would be a problem, but in our own, it is a well-nigh insurmountable one” (MM 161). 

It’s clear in these words and elsewhere in her nonfiction that O’Connor sought to express a Christian moral vision in her stories and novels. She resists, though, the cheap form of narrative moralizing, for she respects the world in which we live and, as this passage underscores, searches for a way to depict both the complex truth of that world and the richness of her vision. Indeed, like other serious Christian writers––Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Anne Bradstreet, Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson, Andre Dubus, and many others––O’Connor addresses matters of the spirit. But the world that she describes is not purely spiritual: yes, she writes about the “supernatural” “encounter [between man and] God,” but not as an abstraction, a solely spiritual transaction, as if that were all that were involved. Rather, she emphasizes that the experience is also “natural” and must be portrayed in a way that is “credible,” an assertion that recalls her insistence elsewhere that fiction pay the “strictest attention to the real,” that it “render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.” In sum, like the best of writers, she will situate her vision in a physical world recognizable to her reader through his senses. 

I suspect that a Christian writer’s representation of some aspect of his faith in a novel or poem is a reason for approval by readers of the same faith. I know that something of that sort originally drew me to, among others, Larry Woiwode and Ron Hansen: word was that here were a couple of gifted writers who also, apparently, claimed to be believers. I had to read them. And I did, and they were both very good. Thus, such writers occupy a special place in the hearts of sympathetic readers: put simply, he cares about the things I do, so I like him. This approval, however, is typically harder to come by the more eccentric, the more difficult––the more suspect––his apparent views or the aspects of life he describes. He claims to be Christian, you might say, but his views on Christ’s divinity seem weak. Or, she deals with issues of marital infidelity, or suicide, or religious doubt, or sex, or domestic violence. That is, the whole of human experience, including the darker or more sensitive corners of that experience. How the author will treat such matters will certainly vary from individual to individual. In the end, though, it’s the serious writer who is willing to engage with the whole of the world and offers his readers the opportunity to join him in that enterprise.

I think it may be profitable at this point to recall O’Connor’s definition of the “Catholic novel”––not the novel, mind you, but the Catholic novel––as “one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships” (MM 172). There’s nothing in these words about moral improvement or even a moral vision, nothing about redemptive purpose or a moment of grace. Those concerns are left to each writer as he chooses. What is essential, however, is, in its simplest terms, an adequate portrayal of “reality,” that which is comprised of––what?––“things and human relationships.” Here, O’Connor surprises us both by choosing not to include any religious component in her definition, but also by the flat conciseness of the words. “Things.” “Human relationships.” And yet, O’Connor would have us know, she has named an infinity there––the world of God’s physical creation and the endless variety of relationships among men. From this living reality, the necessary material of the writer’s art, the poet and the novelist shape their own worlds. To do so well, whether he shapes also a Christian vision, is all a writer need be asked to do. God bless the one who will.

Dr. John Somerville is a professor of English at Hillsdale College.